Q: My five-year-old daughter relies on me far too much. All through the day, she asks me to do simple things for her like get her a glass of water or help her put on her shoes—things she is perfectly capable of doing for herself. If I don’t cooperate, she whines, then cries. She also wants me to watch her play. She can’t seem to entertain herself. At bedtime she wants me to lie down with her until she falls asleep. It never ends! A counselor suggested that she’s desperate for my attention because the new baby is taking up a lot of my time, but this was going on before the baby was born. Can you help me get a life for myself again?
A: What the counselor told you is hogwash. As you said, this problem was going on before the new baby came on the scene. Even if the baby were the problem, the solution is not to give your daughter more attention, wearing yourself to the nub in the process. The solution is for her to understand that she does not deserve being the center of anyone’s attention.
Contrary to the prevailing myth, children who act starved for attention have received too much, not too little. They’ve come to depend on being the center of attention; and the more the “look at me” beast is fed, the bigger it gets and the more demanding it becomes. Children who truly don’t get enough attention usually withdraw into their own little windowless worlds.
Like many of today’s mothers, you obviously feel that if you make a decision that upsets your child, it must have been a bad one. The fact is that children don’t know what they truly need. They only know what they want. They believe further that what they want they must need and they deserve to have, and no one has a right to deny them. That belief defines a child, which means that lots of children are much older than twenty-one. It takes some people a long time to grow up!
Here’s my suggestion. Put a sheet of paper on the kitchen counter, and whenever your daughter asks you to do something for her that she’s perfectly capable of doing for herself, write it down. Take your time. After a week, you’ll probably have a list of 30 items, maybe more.
Title it the “I’m Growing Up List.” Read it to your daughter, then post it on the refrigerator door. Tell her that you spoke to a doctor (I’m a PhD) who told you that she’s much too old to be asking her mother to do all these things for her. The doctor said that children grow up by doing more and more of these things for themselves, so every week she has to cross two items off the list, and you are no longer to do those things for her.
If, after she crosses off an item, she asks you to do it for her, just remind her of the list and say, “I can’t do that for you anymore. You crossed it off because you’re growing up.” After a few weeks, you’ll probably notice that she will begin doing even things she hasn’t yet crossed off the list. You’ll also notice that she’s proud of her new accomplishments.
What fun growing up can be! And how liberating for both parent and child.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.